Thoughts On: Audio Dubbing
A talk on three major examples of audio dubbing in film.
A talk on three major examples of audio dubbing in film.
I just rewatched The Raid Redemption. The first and second time I watched this movie, I loved it. This third time was different. This time I watched a dubbed version of the film instead of a subtitled one. What this seriously highlighted was the weakness of the first act - which was already apparent, but overlookable as character building and general plotting is not the point of practice in this movie. I still love this film for what it is though, and my thoughts around it will be put up soon, but the dubbing of English over Indonesian was horrific. It almost hurt to have to look past the terrible lines and concentrate on the action. It only hurt so much because the original version with subtitles wasn't so bad. The voice acting was fine. It suited facial expressions and the moment of the scene. The major problem with the dubbed version of The Raid is then quite simply bad English voice actors - there's no other way to put it. And in seeing this I felt the bubbling urge to question why on Earth anyone would ruin their film with English dubbing. Whilst, from an artistic angle, this is a perfectly valid question, from a marketing point of view, this is banal and quite stupid. The Raid was obviously meant to be sold additionally to English-speaking markets and having it being sold as a 'non-English-language film' hurts its marketing potential. So, the real pain of hearing this shit version of the film is in the rushed and brazen no-give-a-fuck-ness of the marketing people shoving a new audio track over the original.
But, to come away from the rather vapid (though realistically valid) argument of selling potential and to get back to an idea of artistic quality, of a viewers experience, it's seems so easy to want to call a huge ban, an immediate stop, on dubbing in film. But, the truth around audio dubbing is much like the truth of CGI. Good CGI like good audio dubbing is something you won't notice, is something that makes great cinema feasible. To this effect, I mean not to talk about audio dubbing or ADR that is there to replace broken pieces of audio or to boost the quality of a film. I mainly want to talk about the use of dubbing over the use subtitles. There are three key classes of this in my opinion. There's the lower class we should all avoid like the plague as presented by something like The Raid. This is bad English dubbing with shit actors used over a film that is perfect as is, that only needs subtitles to be understood. The second class is best presented by something by Studio Ghibli. It's something like Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind that doesn't really need English dubbing for it's older audience, but quite clearly will attract younger kids who may not be able to read. To not provide a chance to see this movie to children makes no sense for Studio Ghibli artistically or from a marketing view point. But, whilst the dubbing is done with ok actors and fits quite well into the movie because some amount of effort has clearly been put into the recording, the writing isn't great and can, at time, stick out like a sore thumb. Moreover, animation and audio dubbing are something that come hand-in-hand, so with Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind we also see a much broader representative of not just good dubbing, but dubbing for animated film. The last key class of audio dubbing is a special type. The likes of A Fist Full Of Dollars, Once Upon A Time In The West or The Good The Bad The Ugly (why Leone liked such long titles, I'll never know) stand as iconic not despite the dubbing, but (in part) because of it. The audio isn't necessarily great, but it's embedded so deeply into the style that it becomes a feature of the film. This is something true not only of Leone's spaghetti westerns, but many older films, especially from realist periods where audio technology wasn't great and so had to be worked with in artistic nuanced ways. Essentially, what I want to do is explore these three classes so we can work towards a broader understanding of dubbing in respect to movies, and so where we should be accepting it, looking for it, or maybe hoping to see it.
So, we'll come back to The Raid to start things off. Out and out bad audio dubbing. Audio is an incredibly important factor of films. It's often said that editing or cinematography are the hidden stitches that hold together movies. Whilst this is true, audio is an incredibly significant factor that anyone can pick up on, understand and judge. This makes sound more important than the editing or cinematography to an audience because there's a wide platform of acceptable looks to a film that can be assumed to be a director's/cinematographer's/film's style. Moreover, the editing of a film, whilst felt by an audience, is only considered primarily on a wider scale - if the viewer is paying attention to your narrative. When we think about editing having first seen a film it's easy to think not of the beat of cuts, the lengths of shots, but the feel of sequences, the pacing of the movie in general. This culminates into a broad assessment of both the look of a film and the editing of it upon first viewing to the audience. And, no, this isn't an excuse for bad editing or cinematography, just reasoning why sound is something so important. It is pushed the to the forefront of an audiences perception. We firstly see a film in terms of action, movement and so on, but then hear it. The layers of a film's depth are perceived in that order. After lightning comes thunder, just like after the lights of a screen comes sound - after that, the judgement of writing, directing, acting and so on. But, first and foremost, we watch and listen to movies. Recognising this in context of The Raid, in the context of a purely entertaining movie with little focus on character, plot, subtext and meaning, is imperative. You aren't watching The Raid to pick up on grand philosophies of the universe, on the nuance and stretch of a character's life - you aren't really watching The Raid for a lesson on technical direction and choreography either - even though you could. You watch The Raid to see tremendous fight sequences, to hear and see character motivation and experience the thrill of cinematic combat. In this, sound is a huge emphasis of imagery - which is why the sound design is so pronounced. We hear the slap, pound and crunch of skin, flesh and bone throughout the film to be given an idea of consequence, so that the film is imbued with some sense of verisimilitude and weight. This has the ear leaning on sound to better experience the imagery of the fights. To then bookend fight sequences with shit dubbing is torturous. There's an almost literal reeling away of the ear. Like I said, you have to ignore the shit dialogue to stay in the film. For the film to push and pull your perceptual eye to and away from the film is not only frustrating, but detrimental to the experience of the movie. In the end, it's simply tiring as your constantly being locked out of sequences before having to pull yourself back into the interesting ones.
The argument against subtitles - it takes you out of the movie because it takes effort to read - is then paradoxical, if not, then at the least it's a lesser of two evils (not that subtitles are bad at all--to me at least). Subtitles should always be taken over bad dubbing for two key reasons. The first is of the draw of an image. The second is of character. When you accept you have to read dialogue you are focused on the screen. You are distracted from general composition, but your eyes are glued. This has more parts of your brain firing, your mind more active and so your viewing capacity much broader, more lucid and dexterous. Reading subtitles ensures you are paying attention to a film. I even turn them on from time to time to assess the writing of a film with greater accuracy - it's almost like reading a screenplay. Instead of reading the action and scene descriptions, you see it, and when viewing a film with a writer's eye, you should be able to describe it in you head. This is a great exercise for screenwriters. Not only can you scrutinise dialogue, see what things may look like on the page with a good actor reading lines, but you can test your creative ability to describe a scene or action. What's more, you see specifically what you need to describe to write cinematically. You can see one shot as a sentence so that when it comes to writing your own scripts, you can visualise a movie, knowing what you'd need to say for a reader to see certain kind of shots. For example, you could see a close-up of a crime scene that cuts to a silhouetted figure, that then pulls into an establishing shot of the room. As a screenwriter, it can be hard to put those kind of cinematics down on paper in a literary kind of way, in a way appropriate for spec that doesn't require technical filmic language of shots and cuts. By being able to describe each shot of a film, or of your vision, without saying close-up, wide and so on, you build your ability to tell cinematic stories on the page and guide a reader's eye. That means this isn't just a technique for screenwriters, but for writers in general. By practicing turning cinema into literature you can really strengthen how you write and your control of imagery - something I try to do, and something I'd recommend to anyone. Coming back to subtitles, we see them as a means of captivating the eye, of putting perceptual emphasis on imagery - the crux of cinema and how you tell your story.
The next key reason why subtitles can aid a film comes down to character. By leaving an actor's lines in tact and in the language they were said in, you are maintaining a sense of verisimilitude that is incredibly hard to otherwise replicate in post-production and with another actor. Such is incredibly obvious, but there's also a nuance to subtitled films - also a benefit to those who don't understand the language. In silent films, the absence of a character's voice leaves a part of their persona a mystery, it allows us to assume they sound a certain way. This is an idea best expressed in Singin' In The Rain:
Lina Lamont is a huge silent film star and the crowds love her. But, only because they don't know what her voice is like and how she actually speaks. We're even fooled into this with the intro of the film. We never hear Lina speak, assuming she's an aloft, posh actress - a real villain and threat to Gene Kelly's, Don Lockwood. But, as soon as we hear that horrible voice she loses all stature and is the immediate butt of almost every single joke. What this makes clear is the power of a voice on character. It can completely revolutionise the way we look at someone for the good or for the bad. What's then clear is that, with bad voice acting, you are really hurting the actual core of a character as seen by an audience. You are essentially ruining script work and having all lines grind out of unsynced mouths in the worst way possible. The mystery inherent in a character speaking another language (even if we know what they are saying via subtitles) is an undefined factor that often works in their favour. To explain, I have no idea what an Indonesian accent sounds like, neither do I know the different dialects or could accurately pick up on what would be classed as bad Indonesian acting - in terms of voice. This allowed me to simply assume certain parts of Rama's, Mad Dog's, Jaka's and other character's personas throughout The Raid. And because I like the film, I want to see their characters in a favourable light, so I (subconsciously) add in that layer of character that isn't supplied by me knowing their dialect and what that suggests about where they're from, how they grew up, who with, what around and so on. What this all means is that subtitles can, when used right, be a huge aid in characterisation.
Having spent some time on the worst kind of dubbing, we should turn to our second example, Nausicaä Of The Valley Of The Wind. I love Nausicaä, as do I many other Studio Ghibli films, but I often stay clear of English dubbed animated films. This is for reasons of character and craft discussed in the previous section. But, more than this, there's an inherent element of precariousness in dialogue from animated films. This is because of the heavy focus of visuals in animation. You can find few better examples of pure cinema outside of animation - especially when you push further away from the silent film period of the 20s. Animation often makes dialogue redundant because of the pure telling of a story with images and often because the artists that work in animation are so good with this kind of story telling. To understand what I mean you simply have to recognise that there is no animated equivalent of 12 Angry Men, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, Pulp Fiction or Before Sunrise. These kinds of films have influence from theater and radio. Animation is influence by visual arts - painting, sculpting and so on. Dialogue shouldn't be a major focus of an animated film's narrative, as films from Studio Ghibli demonstrate. In fact, there's such a lack of dialogue - especially of the expository kind - in Studio Ghibli films that the Disney (English dubbed versions) had to add more in. In Spirited Away this was to explain to English speaking audiences what features like bath houses were as it was assumed that certain aspects eastern culture wouldn't be understood simply through imagery by westerners. On top of this, with Nausicaä we do see a lot exposition. And this is due to the incredible world building capabilities afforded to animators. However, with having the ability to construct such amazing worlds comes the consequence of trying to explain them. This has Nausicaä speaking out loud a lot in the first act to no one but herself, which brings the film down a notch. In English this is quite distracting not only because it's so upfront, but because of the task of translating. This is a huge and unfortunate pitfall of watching foreign films - amine alike. Translating from other languages, especially those like Japanese, is incredibly awkward as the structure of syntax differs so much. This is why Japanese anime sounds so awkward when dubbed. They were written and animated to be seen in Japanese and so hold the structure of a language that will not translate smoothly to English. When it comes to dubbing over other languages in English you are faced with two issues. Firstly, there's actually getting an accurate translation that conveys original intent, and then there's having it sync up. As is made fun out of in...
... phrase lengths differ between languages--which allows the joke of the continuing lines of dialogue after Wayne's said such a short sentence in Cantonese. Whist we see a hyperbolised example in Wayne's World, it's true that when dubbing audio editors run into problems putting over the real translation of lines that also match the length of time by which the mouth of a character moves. This essentially demands re-writing and further takes a film away from it's original idea - away from what, in all likelihood, it was designed for and what made it good. Whilst subtitles aren't a complete fix of this, they do allow language barriers to dissolve slightly with better articulation and the subtracted task of syncing voice and phrases. The argument for subtitles over dubbed animated films is then quite obvious, but a poignant one nonetheless.
The last example of dubbing lets us leave the subject on more optimistic terms.
What Leone proves is that audio is a little more versatile than what I've suggested so far. And in all honesty, I have no succinct reason why the dubbing on these films, though not to great, works so well. The key argument I can put forward for Leone is the heightened scope and size of his films. In the same way certain films simply need over-acting, some films may need artificial sound design. And to see what I mean by over acting you just have to look at anything that's enjoyable but has...
... this guy in. Though that is an extreme example I could also point to someone who, because of the context of comedy, works the craft of over-acting a little better:
Moreover, we can look further down the scale of over-acting and come to Jack Nicholson.
Neither of these films contain subdued and subtle performances, but they work for their characters. And looking further back into cinematic history, from Brando to Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable, Keaton, Chaplin, we are seeing much more emotive styles of acting that wouldn't really fly today in a modern film, but worked back then (and when you watch them now) nonetheless. What this all suggests is an idea of naturalism and fantasy. In the same way images don't have to stay true to reality and acting or writing doesn't have to portray truly real people, audio doesn't have to reflect reality either. You can work with the foundations of fantasy in the filmic back-catalogue as to bend the rules of the expect and produce something cinematic. In other words, films can construct their own rules around a touch-and-go basis of audience expectations. You can imbue new elements into a film that some (me included) would say you should stay away from - dubbing included. If you can find a way for it to work, for it to entertain, to support a story, then anything from overacting to audio dubbing is something that could be experimented with - but with caution and knowing the limitations and difficulties of the mechanism.
In the end, subtitles are my go to. I'll only watch a dubbed film if I can't find a subtitled version - and for all we've discussed so far. This provides us all incite into certain aspects of audio's role in the cinematic arsenal, but doesn't really say dubbing shouldn't be apart of it. Audio dubbing, especially over other languages is a tough task, one that should be approached with caution, but with works like those of Leone as inspiration, dubbing can become an art in itself that stands iconic over your personal style.
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